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The ecru revolution?

John Jasperse's CALIFORNIA questions our capacity for revolt, before Shen Wei's late Independence Day gift: Connect Transfer


I would love to believe future workplaces will resemble the postmodern playgrounds Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross have cataloged in their current book, The 21st Century Office. Its full-color photographs disclose "fun" environments like the chrome swings in's London reception area, high-concept movie sets like the silver and maple board room of Berlin's DZ Bank, and the expensive, cool neutrality of Oliver, Wyman's digs in New York.

But let's not fool ourselves. With multinationals scouring the globe to procure natural--and human--resources at absolutely bottom dollar, such indulgences will clearly be reserved for the executive class. For the drones, the office--or, more likely, the plant--is probably going to look a lot more like John Jasperse's CALFORNIA, which played Reynolds Theater last Tuesday and Wednesday.

At its start, four dancers dressed as workers in gray industrial coveralls carefully step into a chamber bordered on all sides by black. Jasperse soon joins them, slowly sliding across the stage in a near-fetal position. But well before their entrance, harsh work lights have already revealed the chamber's main inhabitant: architect

Ammar Eloueini's large, complex and obviously high-tech structure of connected polycarbonate panels, suspended from a motorized track.

Stretching over half the stage, its various lengths descend from curtain to inches above the floor. The unidentified object gradually curves and folds from a wrinkled plane at its left edge into a near half-shell at its opposing end. Its translucent panels look first like titanium, and then wet silicon in Jasperse and Joe Levasseur's slowly shifting light. Always, it seems cold.

Clearly the thing is precious: it cannot touch the ground or be touched itself. The laborers manipulate the assembly by air alone when they aim leaf blowers at it--a jarring, amusing pedestrian note in such minimal surroundings.

What's absent is as significant as what is present. The only technology in the room--the motorized track, the occasional blowers--serves the suspended figure. Nothing serves the humans: not a single chair or table, no food, no bed, no sunlight. There's no color on the walls, floors or uniforms. No fashion. The object doesn't need them.

It's easy to read Jasperse's choreography as criticizing a culture where technology is privileged and the workplace has infiltrated all parts of life. While Jonathan Bepler's score randomly mixes synthesizer and piano single notes with disparate industrial and organic sounds, the workers step, emotionlessly, into the cold shell of technocracy, moving almost as if not to agitate the form that looms above them.

Steven Fetherhuff and Eleanor Hullihan's rapid, interconnecting arm, leg and upper body combinations at mid-work seem designed to reflect even further all that this culture values: brevity, precision, mechanical efficiency and speed.

But these and other company calisthenics, some which resemble tai chi, abruptly end with three solid shocks to the system.

As Fetherhuff and Hullihan's straight, extended arms and flat, rigid hands slowly swing across the front of their bodies, they pause for a moment in an echo of the Nazi salute. The arc completed, a brief change in arm and hand position has the pair appear to quote the human image of universal greeting engraved on NASA's Voyager I satellite.

As they do, Katy Pyle and Rachel Poirier approach the opening of the assembly's right-hand shell. They genuflect when they get there. After both lie down in its shadow, they rise and lift their fingertips upward in a human gesture all but dwarfed by the object above them.

Afterwards, the five laborers roll back and forth restlessly on the floor, as if on separate, ruined mattresses, their eyes open throughout. As in Jasperse's earlier works, bodies may seek rest in an unprotected place, beneath a form that gives no shelter, but they never find it.

So far, so grim a world. And what interrupts it can't be taken as improvement.

After Jasperse moves the structure--with his hands--his subsequent head swings and facial expressions exaggerate the dawning of awareness. His character examines his body, costume and surroundings in surprise. As he does, the other dancers rip the suspended shape apart, pulling at cords that have held it together.

But this potentially revolutionary act is executed as dispassionately as all that have come before. True, Fetherhuff, Hullihan and Pyle briefly hold each other tight before enacting a weight-sharing whirligig at center stage. Hullihan and Pyle subsequently hug in a potent moment of stillness, after similarly agitated, individual torsional explorations.

Then one woman sags out of the embrace. Pyle's character ministers to Jasperse's inert form, releasing him from his industrial garb. An underlying earth-tone costume suggests bandages or desert camouflage.

A motif of triage during wartime is reinforced when Pyle palpates Jasperse's stomach and checks the lymph nodes in his neck, in a prelude to the most affecting duet in the performance.

Though the rest of the company inevitably shed their industrial garb (after slow, pupal convulsions on the floor), these portentous changes still presage no golden dawn. Characters accelerate for a while before they start repeating earlier gestures; going through mechanical motions, lacking the imagination or spirit to change.

These dystopic deliberations grow lengthy. In addition, we cannot buy the null emotions that make the violence at CALIFORNIA's center appear to erupt, unsupported, out of nowhere. When the feelings are all but bleached out of humanity, how does the capacity to rebel remain?

When Jasperse insists, to the end, on cool neutrality and minimal emotional affect, CALIFORNIA ultimately suggests a self-contradicting form--one even less likely than Eloueini's doomed, fantastic figure. It's a passionless revolt, an ecru revolution; an insurrection whose discretion precludes its ever abridging the emotional distance of its participants. No wonder its results are less than satisfactory.

The drafting table had already been prepared--a trapezoid of clean, white space, bordered on all sides by black--when the audience entered Reynolds Theater on Monday night. But within moments of the opening of Connect Transfer, choreographer Shen Wei revealed artistic ambitions well beyond the sketches, line studies and paintings that have informed his dance work now for years.

This may surprise those who have followed the influences of visual art on Mr. Shen's work since his first ADF premiere, Near the Terrace, in 2000. That gentle, evocative tribute to the Surrealists, seemingly created by the inhabitants of a dream to commemorate their own impermanence, was followed by Folding, a recombinant homage to Chinese nature painting. Indeed, Shen painted the goldfish in the backdrop to that dance.

Trompe l'oeil figured into Behind Resonance, an icy piece whose ingenious manipulation of light and shiny surfaces gave its dancers the appearance of shifting between two and three dimensions throughout the work, before Shen's masterful Rite of Spring vividly reimagined Stravinsky's original two-piano score through the lens of abstract impressionism, in a playful but compelling series of line study "games."

Thus knowledgeable eyes might have easily assumed Shen was merely lining up his brushes when he placed his dancers at the start in a vertical row just beyond the border of the white space.

Shows how much we know: After doing that, the choreographer began to sculpt with them instead. In a series of early solos, Shen placed individual dancers dressed in gray and black, alone, on the pristine page.

Then he proceeded to fold and manipulate the various visual planes of these bodies into increasingly complex forms. It was invigorating to see Shen explore territory similar to William Forsythe's 2002 work, The Room as It Was.

Room opened Ballett Frankfurt's last stand--ever--at Washington's Kennedy Center in mid-June, while Paul Taylor played ADF. In many ways, it makes an interesting comparison to Shen's new work.

Where Room teetered more than once on the edge of freak show with its radical manipulation of body parts and bone--think breathless origami--amid the hurly-burl of Frankfurt street life, Shen's work seemed to place individual works of art on the floor of a museum, with dignity and obvious care.

After her intriguing opening solo, Alexa Kershner was paired with an austere Brooke Broussard, while Jesse Zaritt, Sara Procopio and James Healey teamed up in a possible future primer for contact improv. Once the dancers established a connection between body parts--a forehead with the top of a foot and then a knee, a finger with the inside of an elbow--they proceeded to explore the full range of limitations and possibilities the cardinal points presented.

The visual result suggested what a rarified game of Twister--with the target dots on each other's bodies--might look like. One particularly affecting turn between Zaritt and Procopio echoed a near-inverse of Michelangelo's Pieta, in compelling motion.

After Kennis Hawkins arced and dove headfirst across the floor, her body, arms and legs consumed in sweeping spirals and rolls which covered the stage, Kana Sato repeated the same gestures--in a costume that incorporated a paint brush at one hand. After outrageous black spirals and arcs traced her path across the stage from left to right, the trajectories of the dancers that followed seemed to linger on the stage, even when they had no paint. Contact microphones picked up the high, sliding sound of fabric on the canvas floor, as the see-saw dissonances of Volans' Sixth String Quartet gave way to tangled melodic lines and chromatic morse code chatter of Xenakis' Evryali.

Indeed, Evryali's placement in the work gives another significant clue to Shen's aspirations. Xenakis' sheet music is a drawing--not conventionally notated music.

It's appropriate for a piece that aspires to gesamptkunstwerk--the German phrase meaning "total art work," the ambition of 19th and 20th century mixed-media artists. But where earlier artists believed the term implied the perfect fusion of music and theater (in the operas of Wagner, for example), here Shen is joining sculpture, painting, dance and music into a new synthesis. He does so not to advance a cultural myth, but to demonstrate the possibilities the forms raise together. Small wonder Connect Transfer ends with the crystalline cadence of Ligeti's Sonatina. The music--and Shen's final solo--both suggest a manifesto, and the possibility of further artistic liberation: an Independence Day's gift for the audiences and the student artists at ADF. EndBlock

ADF artists respond to Iraq with the panel "Dance Making in Response to War Making: Political Choreography," in White Lecture Hall, Wednesday, July 7 at 7:30 p.m. A slow walk for peace takes place outside the Bryan Center, Monday, July 12 at 7 p.m. (646) 206-7179 for info.

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